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From the Noteworthy column of the January 2003 Perspectives

Challenge from an Archivist: The National Coalition for History Needs More Historian Supporters

George W. Bain, January 2003

The National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History is out. The National Coalition for History (NCH) is in. The former title was a mouthful; it's no wonder people shortened this to "NCC." The new title more succinctly states the organization's purpose and provides a better form of identification for the external world.

The process by which NCC became the NCH represents more than a change in the acronym. It is the result of a careful review of the group's purpose and mission—of what it is, where it wants to go, and how it wants to get there. Such reviews are necessary at least occasionally, and the Coalition appears to be more clearly focused for the future.

The National Coalition for History, however, will only show a greater vitality in meeting the advocacy needs of historical and archival professionals to the extent that it receives greater levels of support from the professions. For those of you whose organization is not yet a supporting member of the Coalition, now is the time to show that support. This is a challenge for you to do that.

Please note that I am an archivist, not an academic historian. In my view the archival profession can claim a more than proportionate share of support for the NCC, support that will no doubt continue for the Coalition. This support from archivists comes most visibly from the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the primary professional organization in the United States (and Canada). The list includes the second most prominent national group, the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators (NAGARA). And the list of archival supporters also includes several regional (multistate) and state-level archival organizations. Take a look at the Coalition's web site, http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~ncc/: the regional groups are the New England Archivists (NEC), the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archival Conference (MARAC), the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC), and the Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA). The state groups are the Society of California Archivists (SCA), and the Society of Ohio Archivists (SOA).

I am a member of the last of the list, SOA. It is not an extremely large group. It has a membership of perhaps 200 individual and institutional members. But despite its small size, it has been a supporter now for nearly a decade.

Why? Because supporting the Coalition is a win-win situation. By making an annual contribution to the NHC, its institutional supporters trust that the Coalition will do its best to represent them as a part of the larger effort to promote the historical and archival community writ large. To this end, the Coalition will continue the NCC's legacy of accomplishment that includes influencing lawmakers to enact legislation to make the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) an independent agency in the mid-1980s and the NCC's ongoing and largely successful efforts to enhance the budgets of NARA (including the National Historical Publications and Records Commission) and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Let us not forget the organization's past and future commitment to enhancing the Department of Education $100 million "Teaching American History" initiative.

Coalition members also know that they—like the SOA for instance—are listed on the Coalition's letterhead and web site, thereby showing its commitment to the Coalition's purpose. In addition, since SOA has its own listserve, its subscribing members get WASHINGTON UPDATE, the weekly electronic newsletter of the NCH that brings timely news delivered directly to their personal e-mail accounts.

The e-mail delivery is convenient, certainly, and the publicity for SOA has value. But even more significant is how the National Coalition for History fills the need for advocacy and our representation in the centers of power. The Coalition participates in monitoring or contributing to very real policy decisions. Should historical congressional and foreign policy records be released? Should a sitting president make decisions about allowing access to the files of past presidents? Are cultural institutions such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian Institution receiving adequate funding? To me, supporting the NCH, and thus enabling it to exert such significant influence, is a bargain at any price.

So what about your group? Is it willing to support the primary agent for advocacy for the historical and archival community in the nation? There are a large number of professional historical and archival organizations across the land. A review of the groups that are affiliate members of the AHA shows that many are also supporters of the Coalition. But without singling out anyone in particular, the match-up reveals that less than half the affiliates are Coalition supporters. This member of a flyweight archival group challenges all affiliates to declare a higher level of commitment to the cause. If the members of affiliated groups say "no" to becoming supporting organizations, one archivist asks, "Why not?"

In addition to the AHA affiliates, there are also other professional and academic historical groups that can become Coalition supporters. I recently challenged the Ohio Academy of History to become a supporting member of the NCH. The Ohio Academy has counterparts in a fair number of other states and regions. They too can become supporters.

Remember, becoming an "institutional supporter" is a win-win proposition. The annual organizational donation will not break your organization's treasury. The annual contribution is not based on an organization's size and budget, as is the case with many other coalitions. There is no "minimum" contribution to belong to the NCH—that decision is left to the boards of directors of institutional supporters because the NCH believes they are in the best position to consider their organization's level of commitment and financial ability to support the profession's advocacy and education efforts. The average annual institutional donation is in the $800-$1,500 range, though smaller volunteer-run groups more typically contribute in the $300-$500 range. Larger organizations such as AHA, the OAH, and the SAA bear the brunt of budgetary support for the Coalition. But the simple fact remains that support from 50 more organizations would increase NCH's financial resources significantly and thereby enhance our community's voice on Capitol Hill.

The NCH is a registered nonprofit entity, organized under Section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code and operates (with one staff person) out of space provided by the AHA in its building on Capitol Hill. The organization's budget varies depending on annual contributions, hence the importance of attracting new institutional supporters. In January 2003, however, the group's Policy Board will adopt a budget of just over $115,000 for the fiscal year and will continue to implement the strategic plan for the new "Coalition."

Membership has many benefits. The NCH Policy Board and representatives of the member organizations meet twice a year—at the AHA and OAH annual meetings. Special meetings occasionally take place during the annual meeting of the SAA. During these meetings representatives of member organizations receive briefings during the "Hill Rat Open Forum" sessions and have an opportunity to tell the NCH board their issues and concerns.

What can a modest, 20 percent budgetary increase allow the Coalition to do that it doesn't do now? Very simply, the NCH can begin to implement the Coalition's new strategic plan! That document calls for enhancing "legislative partnering" with other history related organizations. It proposes launching a new series of "NCH Action Alerts" to activists; creating an "advocacy network"; dramatically improving the NCH web page and electronic communications; reaching out to the media more effectively; and perhaps most important, increasing staffing to enhance visibility and effectiveness in the halls of Congress.

In my mind, seeing other groups join in order to provide the Coalition the means for achieving these extras would make NCH's accomplishments an even greater exchange. For those of you whose organizations are not supporters, is your group unwilling or incapable of participating in the "passion and action of our time," or is it ready to meet this bold challenge? Omission as well as commission makes history. Inaction may result in the historical and archival professions being hooted out of the ring of competitive play. Joined together as many heavyweights and lightweights, however, a larger historical team can wield more clout. The choice is yours to make. Why not support the National Coalition for History—and take that step now?

Organizations interested in becoming "institutional supporters" of the National Coalition for History should contact NCH director Bruce Craig at rbcraig@historycoalition.org. A nifty pack of information will swiftly be mailed back.

—George W. Bain is the head of Archives & Special Collections in the Ohio University Libraries.